American Crime Story: Versace–Interview with Ryan Murphy

This is the third installment of Ryan Murphy’s acclaimed anthology, American Crime Story: Versace (See below).

Edgar Ramirez stars as the openly gay designer, who was tragically gunned down on the steps of his Miami Beach mansion in 1997 by serial killer Andrew Cunanan, played by Darren Criss.

The limited series chronicles the bizarre murder and the manhunt for Cunanan, who targeted gay men and was responsible for five murders.

Casting Darren Criss as Cunanan

Ryan Murphy: I didn’t have to convince him at all. What I like to do is give people opportunities sometimes that they would never have. And Darren is obviously a brilliant singer and a performer and a showman and did “Glee” and has been on Broadway. When Brad Simpson and Nina Jacobson and I were first talking about this idea of doing Versace as sort of the O.J. follow-up, which was around two years ago, I immediately called Darren. Because to me he was the only one for that part. And I just said, I’m thinking about doing this, would you be interested. And he said, well yes, very much so because it’s such a great part. And I said, ok I’ll get the contracts drawn. And then it took two years because you have to write it and you have to get it green-lit. But he was always the only person I had in mind for it because I knew that he would push himself because he was so hungry to prove himself in a different way. And it’s a truly insane dramatic part. And he really wanted to go there. So he was the only person we talked to. He hadn’t heard from me and then he was getting ready to do another show and the day it was announced that Versace was up, he was, oh shit what am I going to do. But we all worked it out so he was able to get out and commit pretty much a year to it. And he was great. Brad and Nina went to see him in “Hedwig” and he knew they were in the audience so of course he came out and sat on Brad’s lap and did the whole showbiz thing.

Relationship to Versace

RM: I never met him but I know a lot of people who did meet him. I sold my first script in late 1996 so I was just starting. And he obviously was killed a year later so I never got to meet him. I knew a lot of people who were very close to him. I’ve worked with Naomi Campbell who was very close to him, who told me a lot of interesting things about him. Madonna, there’s the Madonna guest suite upstairs which is the first place I went to when we came here. She used to sit in the bathtub and stand up and tease them all out in the courtyard. I never got to meet him, but he was always somebody I was very interested in. I loved him. I felt like I had a lot in common with him, what he did and where he came from and how he really dedicated his life to beauty and style and was obsessed with a vision of things. And I related to him. I was at restaurant called Off Vine in L.A. when I first heard the news. And weirdly was also at the same restaurant when Princess Diana died. So I’ve stopped going to Off Vine after the Princess Diana announcement. I was just very moved and shattered by it. It was somebody who’s gay, who is in the gay community, of course then, half the people I knew who had had ties to Hollywood and San Diego said, I was at a bar, I met Andrew Cunanan.  So there was always a very mythical thing about that guy. But it was just a real tragedy. And the reason I wanted to do this story so badly was because if you do O.J., what do you do to top O.J.? You have to do something completely different. And I wanted to do something smaller and more intimate. And, it’s a different kind of crime. When we do “American Crime” we’re not just going to do Jon Benet, we’re not going to just do something salacious. It has to be about something that has American social issues in it. And this period of time that we’re talking about, 1997, there were really two people who were out in entertainment, Elton John and Gianni Versace.

Versace as Openly Gay

RM: Versace really struggled with it. There were a lot of conversations with Donatella. Should I come out of the closet? Because my business is going public. He was terrified that by not being able to be himself he would be discriminated against and lose everything. That was also the period of don’t ask, don’t tell, which we dive into.  The reason why it’s such an interesting American crime is because Gianni Versace was only killed because of homophobia. Andrew Cunanan killed and targeted people who were gay or who were in the closet. And his murders tend to out them. There was a gentleman who was in his 70’s named Lee Miglin who was one of the early victims, whose family was so upset and terrified of his personal life coming out that they just sort of said, motive unknown. And the police didn’t pursue it. And by the time Cunanan got to Miami, the police officers in town had thousands of wanted posters in the trunks of the cars that they would not put up because they would not go to gay bars. They just wouldn’t do it. So we’re delving with all this very dark period of American society that is obviously personal to me, and very upsetting.

Cunanan as Character

RM: We had the book that we optioned, “Vulgar Favors.” The thing about Cunanan was a mystery in many ways. The things that I was fascinated about is the creator-destroyer idea of Cunanan and Versace sort of were the same beginning. They came from immigrant families, they wanted to be famous, they wanted to be celebrated and one person did the work and took the risk, which was Versace, and one person didn’t, who was Cunanan.  Cunanan was also a tragic story. He was lied to by his parents, specifically his father, who told them they were incredibly wealthy, almost royalty in the Philippines. And in his teenage years he discovered that his father had been lying the entire time. He was treated like a celebrity in his own family. When he was very young his parents gave him the master suite. So he sort of grew up with this kingly idea of who he was and who he could be. And then it was all taken away and he was shattered by it. And he had real psychological difficulties dealing with. There was also what we could never verify or prove, sexual abuse in his family. So he was also a very tragic figure and wanted fame and fortune so desperately that what happened with him was when he killed someone, the first victim, that probably was in a fit of pique and rage, he decided well, I’m going to go to jail, I’m going to be destroyed, so I want to be famous so I’m going to move towards that. And in taking the life of the famous person became his fame which is also a very American story that we see time and time again, that’s gotten progressively worse with social media over the years and threats and violence.  When you have somebody like Cunanan, who is thought of in many circles as a monster, and the person that took away Gianni Versace from us, you also have to with the actor say, well let’s talk about his childhood. He was a real person. Something along the way made him snap. So we’ve talked a lot about that. And Darren did a lot of research on his own and showed up ready to go.

Edgard Ramirez as Versace

RM: Whenever I do something like this, or like O.J. or, I always have one person in mind that I think of, always. So, Darren was the obvious choice. I was friends with him. I knew him. And I wanted people to see something that I saw which was a great dramatic actor. In the case of Edgar, if you look at Edgar, Edgar looks exactly like Versace. When we have the prosthetic and the wig and can show you pictures it’s amazing. And Edgar has that sort of grandiose gravity as a human being that Versace had. And he was my only choice. And I met him. And I always have this thing when I give this really long, impassioned spiel, I’m going to die if you don’t do it. And at the end of the meeting I was, what do you think? And he was, well, let me think about it. I was, what? What do you mean? And then I was, ok I’m going to get you no matter what, and I did. And he met with Brad and Nina and loved them and I really pushed hard. And by the time I gave him a second script you can’t deny the power of the part. And he was, ok, I get it, I love it, I’ll do it.

 

Ricky Martin as Versace’s Lover

Ricky was another example of somebody that, people think of Ricky as “La Vida Loca” and a Vegas showman and he’s doing Sting. But Ricky is so soulful and intimate. And I just saw something in him. I’ve also worked with him once before. And you know the boyfriend, Antonio, was a very tragic figure because he was with Versace for 15 years and loved him and Versace was killed and he was out. He was thrown out of this palace and this life. And he had suicide attempts. And I thought, well I think Ricky could really go there and would want to do this. I met Ricky, I just called him up and said, can I talk to you? And I explained to him the role. And then I offered him the role. And at the end of the meeting we both got really teary because he didn’t tell me that he and Edgar were very close friends. And Edgar was, oh I want you to do this part so bad but I’m not going to, do that.

Penelope Cruz as Donatella

RM: was a little bit trickier because I obviously know and adore Gaga. And we briefly discussed it but she was doing “A Star Is Born” with Bradley Cooper, that’s basically shooting this whole year and I had to shoot the show this year. So then I was sort of thinking about people and I know Penelope because of Javier and “Eat, Pray, Love” and I spent a lot of time with them. And I just asked if I could speak with her. And she is friends with Donatella.  And I thought that was a great in because she knew her, she would be an advocate for her. But again, she is an Oscar winning actress and a great one at that so I thought it would be interesting. And she said yes instantly too. So I had great luck with it. And I also love that for all of them, you’ll see a different side of them. You’ve never seen Penelope do something like that. You’ve certainly never seen Ricky Martin or Edgar do something like that. And it’s been exciting to see.

Surprises: Versace was HIV+

We have a brilliant writer named Tom Rob Smith who’s writing the episode and has really taken an auteur approach to the material. And so he’s really immersed in it. And he’s constantly coming up with great nuggets that are surprising. I think the most devastating thing for me that I learned was that he had HIV and almost died. And at that time there was no cocktail. And he was really devastated because he was a person who loved life and he was trying to figure out a way to pass the company to Donatella because he was going to die. It was a death sentence. But miraculously, right around the time the cocktail had started to come back and he took the right cocktail of pills and got his health back.  He felt he had so much left to say and then he was killed out on his steps that morning. He was creating again and designing again and he was crying all the time because his life had been given back to him. You can imagine for Donatella and Gianni and Antonio to have this second life, this great lion of a man was restored to vigor. And he was just snuffed out instantly with two bullets to the face. That was really devastating to me.

 

Other Victims

The Lee Miglin killing was just so barbaric and cruel and awful. He was a closeted gay man. And Cunanan did that and had such rage, obviously self-loathing, that he killed him in such a violent way. And then dressed him up as a woman with panties and lot of sex toys around so that his family would find this and be humiliated. We spent two days shooting that assassination. And it was really tough. The crew was crying and the actors were crying because it was the exact spot he was killed and you can feel him. Like, who does this in a room? And what else could he have done? He was taken so soon. And you can just imagine the gifts he would have given us.

 

Actual Filming

Every story has its own organic thing. So for this story we did a really cool thing, we’re starting the story with, the first 15 minutes are music, opera, no dialogue, and it’s Versace restored to health, getting up and starting his day with his staff and then walking to the News Café, intercut with Cunanan stalking him and tracking him.  It starts with his murder. And then what we wanted to do was tell the story backwards. Versace was the last murder but in our show he’s the first. And then we go back in time. We tell the story backwards, ending with the Cunanan figure as a young man and Versace as a young man trying to make a stab of it as a designer.

There’s only violence and murder in the first four or five episodes. And then you really get into the psychological struggle of how does one person become a creator and how does one become a destroyer. And then the last episode is Cunanan on the houseboat making a decision to kill himself before they arrest him.  I’ve never done anything backwards. But I loved the storytelling of it because I think you’ll be so moved because it starts with a violent act and by the time you’ll get to the end you will really realize what Versace had to go through to become Versace and what Cunanan went through to become that killer.

Donatella

RM: We have had some contact with Donatella. I met Allegra when she was younger, she came to the “Glee” live tour. I was very excited to meet Allegra Versace. Donatella had been very kind and very lovely. As a mother she really has been very protective of her children. And that was really her only request was, which she conveyed to Penelope and thus to me, is she really wanted to make sure that her kids weren’t portrayed on screen and that there was nothing about them in the show. I’m a parent and I can understand, I don’t want them to see that and go through any pains. We removed them at her request. And I think it was the right thing to do. But that was it. She has been sort of hands off, and that was her only request. I’m sure it will be incredibly difficult to see. But in a weird way I hope that the family can see it because it really is a tribute to his genius. And also, she comes off incredibly well because it’s really a very modern idea about a woman who is the sister of a very famous person. She’s also creative but suddenly he’s dead and what do I do? Do I fold up the tent or do I keep the business alive? That was incredibly difficult for Donatella to do. And I think she did a very heroic job of it. She saved the company. She mobilized the family. She kept the business afloat and became a modern heroine.

 

American Crime Story Anthology

Season 1: The People v. O.J. Simpson (2015-2016)

Season 2: Katrina (2017-2018)

Season 3: Versace (2017-2018)

Season 4: Monica Lewinsky (2018-2019)

Production: Ryan Murphy Productions | Distributor: FX Network

Cast:

Edgar Ramirez/Gianni Versace

Darren Criss/Andrew Cunanan,

Penelope Cruz/Donatella Versace

Ricky Martin/Antonio D’Amico

Credits

Creators-Writers: Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski

Directors: Ryan Murphy, Anthony Hemingway, John Singleton

Writers: Jeffrey Toobin, DV DeVincentis, Joe Robert Cole

Producers: Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, Nina Jacobson

 

 

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